AOL Eyes Personal Search

America Online's plans to improve and expand its search offerings include moving into personalized search, says Gerry Campbell, vice president and general manager of AOL Search.

"We're very focused on search as a company," Campbell says. "We're moving very aggressively in defining new ways for people to search, interact with and store information. It's a gigantic part of the company's focus. There's lots more to come."

One logical area for AOL to move towards in search is personalization, or giving users the capability to customize their search activities, save queries, and manage, manipulate, and store results, he says. "Personalization is on the horizon. That's a given," he says.

Useful Application?

At this stage in the game, it's clear personal search is an interesting space, but it has yet to be proven if it's truly useful for users, Campbell says. While recognizing that competitors such as Yahoo, A9.com, and Ask Jeeves have made strong moves in personal search recently, Campbell says users can expect AOL to follow suit "in a few months."

"There still has to be some proof as to whether personalizing search is hype," he says. "It's definitely interesting but it still bears proof to see whether it's actually useful, but we're charging after it."

Another area that Dulles, Virginia-based AOL is looking to extend search is towards its AIM instant messaging service. "We're innovating in every way you can imagine with respect to search," he says. "We're leaders in the instant messaging market and there should be some significant offerings there" in the future.

AOL is also working to further integrate into its overall search experience the multimedia search capabilities it acquired when it bought the company Singingfish in November 2003, Campbell says. "We've done a very simple integration just to get moving. We're applying that technology internally so that we can get a more seamless integration of audio and video search results."

Going Wireless

Although AOL has been quiet on the wireless search front, an area in which competitors Yahoo and Google have made moves recently, it is a segment AOL is paying close attention to, he says. "We don't have anything out in the [wireless search] market yet, but that belies the amount of concentration that we have on it as a company," Campbell says.

The technical capabilities to tap search engines via a mobile device, such as a cell phone, have existed at least since the late 1990s, but the problem has been a lack of consumer demand, Campbell says. "There is still time to get this right. What's going to crack it is someone coming up with a completely new and fantastic experience that people can't live without," he says.

AOL is currently very happy with its arrangement with competitor Google to use Google's search technology to power AOL Web searches, Campbell says. Google is the best at crawling and indexing the Web, and AOL doesn't see any value for itself in trying to duplicate what Google does so well already, he says. However, AOL is continually improving and expanding its own search technologies that it uses to package and add value to the results it gets from Google, he says. "We're applying for [search] patents at almost blinding rates," he says. AOL also displays sponsored-search ads from the Google ad network.

AOL's search efforts apply both to its fee-based online service and to its free Web sites, such as the AOL.com portal, although the company is generally able to offer more search content within its fee-based service, he says. AOL already offers local search, multimedia search, image search, news search, and product search, and has acknowledged it is developing a desktop search product which is now in beta.

Overall, AOL, which is owned by media giant Time Warner, has shifted its stance on search in the past several years. Four years ago, search was considered an important albeit not critical area, but in the past two years or so, executives have realized that search needs to be a priority for the company, he says.

"AOL is investing in search because search is the chosen mode for users to navigate the Internet. They don't necessarily want to browse. They want to come in, get what they're looking for and do whatever they'd like to do with it and move on. That's the need we'll be meeting. A year from now, search will be a very familiar but more powerful experience," he says.

Note: PCWorld.com has a partnership agreement to provide content to AOL.

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